After Vote, Pressure to Speed Up Iran Reform

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Iranian president Mohammed Khatami's patience has been resoundingly rewarded, but he'll need plenty more of it to deal with the rush of expectations brought on by his overwhelming election victory. The reformist president's movement to remake Iran's theocracy appeared Monday to have scored a landslide victory in Iran's parliamentary elections and sent his conservative clerical foes into retreat. And that's a dramatic comeback for a leader who only last summer was in danger of being marginalized as militant pro-reform students took to the streets to protest conservative excesses, only to be bludgeoned back to class by conservative-controlled security forces and militia in an action that appeared to underline the limits of presidential authority in Iran.

Khatami's attempt to break the conservatives' grip by taking advantage of existing democratic spaces to deepen democracy and the rule of law requires considerable patience from young Iranians chafing under the almost boundless political and social control of the clerical authorities. But as last summer's protests showed, the conservatives — who control Iran's all-powerful clerical institutions and its security forces — are at their most powerful when confronted by a challenge they can define as a national security crisis rather than a domestic political challenge.

But even as a he savors his triumph, Khatami will be well aware that the forces which brought it about are not easily tamed. Two thirds of Iran's population was born after the 1979 revolution, and it is their dissatisfaction that provides much of the fuel for the reformist victory. With unemployment ranging between 17 and 30 percent, the pressure to translate his parliamentary majority into tangible political and economic gains will be immense. Still, the election may have created the momentum for a dramatic acceleration of reform. For while Iran may not be a democracy in the Western sense, it is also not a dictatorship; and with Khatami able to claim an unambiguous popular mandate, he'll have the wind at his back.